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A Complete Guide to Reykjavik, the Capital of Iceland

The world's northernmost national capital

December 14, 2018
YS Lee

Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik is a vibrant Nordic metropolis with colorful houses and interesting streets, where impressive museums and inspiring galleries unexpectedly pop up next to bakeries and bars. It's unlikely that you'll meet anyone who doesn't enjoy the close, community culture of Reykjavik. In this comprehensive guide, we'll take you to look at Reykjavik from a local’s perspective and make sure you will make the best of your time staying in the vibrant and dynamic capital of Iceland.

A Complete Guide To Reykjavik

Where is Reykjavik?

As the northernmost capital of the world, Reykjavik sits on the southwest coast of Iceland where Faxa Bay embraces the unsettled wind and the crisp air from the North Atlantic Ocean. Reykjavik is usually a starting point for road trips circling the Ring Road, and to its north is the miraculous Snaefellsnes Peninsula, to the southeast is the spectacular South Coast, and the famous Golden Circle is only within a 100-kilometer radius.

Reykjavik is home to more than 120,000 inhabitants. And 60% of Icelanders reside in a larger area that’s called the Capital Region of Iceland, Höfuðborgarsvæðið in Icelandic. Reykjavik charms the rest of the world with a unique approach - without skyscrapers, subways or metros, the friendly size and the amicable vibe make Reykjavik a lovely destination in all seasons.

Reykjavik, Capital of Iceland

Reykjavik, Capital of Iceland, World's Northernmost National Capital

The History of Reykjavik

The first group of Norse settlers in Iceland was commonly said to be Ingólfur Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother-in-law Hjörleifr Hródmarsson. In 874 AD, they founded Reykjavik by giving a name meaning smoky bay or the bay of smoke, because there was steam going up from the hot springs in the area. The human settlement happened over time, at a slow pace, since only several farms and houses remained until the mid-18th century.

Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík.

Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. (Credit to P. Raadsig 1850, Public Domain)

In 1752, the estate of Reykjavik was donated to a Danish-owned institution by the Danish King. Following that, Skuli Magnusson, regarded as the father of Reykjavik, established wool workshops in a time when Reykjavik’s small trading society started to thrive. This was a turning point for Reykjavik’s standing in history. Meanwhile, other industries also began to loom such as fisheries, sulfur mining, shipbuilding, and agriculture. Later in 1786, Reykjavik gained its charter and became one of the six trading communities in Iceland and the only one that held the charter permanently. The city of Reykjavik also witnessed the trading expand from Danish monarchy to all nationalities in 1880.

Downtown Reykjavik in 1860s Where Domkirkjan Church and Tjornin Pond were Visible

Downtown Reykjavik in 1860s Where Domkirkjan Church and Tjornin Pond were Visible [Photo by Sigfús Eymundsson (1837 - 1911) Public Domain in Iceland]

The economic establishment reinforced the Icelandic nationalism in which Reykjavik played a crucial role in the political side of the history. When the rise of the Icelandic nationalism demanded independence, Iceland needed a parliament. Although Iceland has the world’s first parliament since 930 AD, it discontinued in 1800. Reykjavik came into the political picture with its location advantage, so the world’s first parliament ‘Althing,’ based in Thingvellir, was finally re-established in Reykjavik in 1845. The location of the parliament therefore effectively instated Reykjavik as the capital city of Iceland.

Reykjavik 101

101 refers to the zip code or postal code of Downtown Reykjavik. From the map below you can see it covers an area that covers most of the landmarks and interesting highlights.

We can see Reykjavik has expanded quite a lot over the years. In the late 19th century, Reykjavik basically serviced as a harbor and trading center that we now call the ‘Old Harbor’ and Kvosin. These two areas now constitute the ‘Midbaerinn,’ meaning the city center. Laekjargata Street is an immediate border between the trading zone and the countryside. It’s a drastic contrast from the past when most parts of Iceland were farmland, and people judged the dwellers from the tiny part of the country as “downtown rat,” or Midbaejarrotta in Icelandic.

Later, other neighborhoods started to emerge and flourish around the city center and their names are quite easy to understand. To the west side, you will find Vesturbaer or West Town which is home to the University of Iceland; and Austurbaer or East Town is the home to multiple fantastic spots such as Hlemmur, where you can find a top-notch picklerick cocktail at a bar named ‘Skal,’ meaning cheers in Icelandic.

A top-notch picklerick cocktail at a bar named ‘Skal’ at Hlemmur Square, Reykjavik, Iceland

A top-notch picklerick cocktail at a bar named ‘Skal’ at Hlemmur Square, Reykjavik, Iceland

Interesting facts aside, the downtown Reykjavik is now a vibrant, dynamic, walk-friendly city that combines a cosmopolitan vibe in a cozy community. The main streets are illustrated by colorful houses and imaginative wall paintings that say a lot about the embracing and creative nature of Icelanders. It’s safe to say that the city center of Reykjavik is perfect for wanderers and daydreamers.

Street Art in Reykjavik

Street Art in Reykjavik

To See and To Do in Reykjavik from A to Z

There is so much to see and so much to do in Reykjavik. As Iceland’s cultural center, the city is not only a traveling destination but also a place full of significant events and exciting adventures surrounded by incredible landscapes. We are going to break down the topic by detailing the best places and activities possible from A to Z.

Downtown Reykjavik in Winter

Downtown Reykjavik in Winter (Photo credit to flickr.com/photos/leeys/)

A

Althingishusid or the parliament building stands in the very center of Reykjavik giving out a formal, serious look amongst the colorful houses and commercial venues. It’s a classical 19th-century dark-grey stone structure, built out of hewn dolerite. The designer is Danish architect Ferdinand Meldahl. Constructed from 1880 to 1881, Althingi is Iceland’s national parliament and the oldest also the highest institution in the country.

Althingishusid, the Parliament Building, Reykjavik, Iceland

Althingishusid, the Parliament Building, Reykjavik, Iceland (Photo by Zinneke)

Austurvollur Square is situated in the heart of the capital next to the parliament building and it’s the most popular sunbathing spot for the locals. A statue of Iceland’s national hero Jon Sigurdsson is standing in the center of the square. The lighting of the Christmas Tree is held here every December. Austurvollur also has a significant stance in Iceland’s history as it’s often the ending point for peaceful protests and walks. The most notable protest on Austurvollur square took place in 2008 after the financial crash.

Reykjavik Peace Walk Passing Austurvollur Square in December, Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik Peace Walk Passing Austurvollur Square in December, Reykjavik, Iceland

Art Museum of Reykjavik is the best place to follow the creative trend of Icelandic and Nordic art and design. Reykjavik Art Museum has three locations (in Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn) to exhibit works by three of the most famous Icelandic artists providing a valuable chance for visitors to understand Iceland from different perspectives.

B

Botanical Garden of Reykjavik, or Grasagardur Reykjavik, was found in 1961 as an outdoor venue presenting a collection of living plants. To conserve plants for researching, educational and sightseeing purposes, the botanical garden has more than 3000 plant species lined up in eight collections. It has an especially charming and delightful ambiance during the summer nights when drizzle is in the air.

A Walk Path in the Botanical Garden (Grasagardur Reykjavik), Iceland

A Walk Path in the Botanical Garden (Grasagardur Reykjavik), Iceland (Photo by Salvör Gissurardóttir)

Bio Paradis, or Cinema Paradise, is an independent cinema located in downtown Reykjavik. It screens a diverse selection of movies, ranging from the latest independent blockbuster, films of the non-mainstream genre, experimental movies, Icelandic documentaries, and shorts. Bio Paradis also collaborates annually with international and Icelandic film festivals.

C

Culture House, or Safnahúsið in Icelandic, is an exhibition hall located in downtown Reykjavik where you can see the newest permanent exhibit on the visual history of Iceland. The gray-roofed white structure was constructed between 1906 and 1908 and was considered the largest and finest building in the country. The style, size, and color of the house make it a landmark in the neighborhood.

Reykjavik Culture House (Safnahúsið), Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik Culture House (Safnahúsið), Reykjavik, Iceland (Photo Credit to Dougsim:Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Culture Night of Reykjavik takes place every August across Reykjavik downtown area with joyful celebrations on streets, squares, in museums, and at both business and residential areas. From 1 - 11 p.m., you will find a diverse selection of cultural events in downtown, and after that, we suggest that you move closer to the harbor to find an unobstructed view of the sky, in preparation for a splendid firework show, which starts at 11 p.m. ending the exciting night.

Fireworks ending the joyful Reykjavik Culture Night in 2018 near the Old Harbor, Iceland

Fireworks ending the Joyful Reykjavik Culture Night near the Old Harbor in 2018, Iceland

D

Domkirkjan church is a cathedral located next to Althingi parliament building. It’s a neoclassical structure built in 1787 - 1796, and expanded later between 1847 and 1848, in the post-classical style. The teal-roofed ivory church is a historical signature, as it’s built with the notion that Reykjavik was going to be the capital of Iceland. It opens to visitors during the weekends and welcomes everyone with a peaceful atmosphere.

Domkirkjan Church near Austurvollur Square, Reykjavik, Iceland

Domkirkjan Church near Austurvollur Square, Reykjavik, Iceland

E

Esjan is the name of a volcano mountain range loved by Reykjavikans as it dominates Reykjavik’s skyline dramatically, with the snowy paths tracing down from the top of the extensively broad mountain. It’s only 10 kilometers away from Reykjavik and is considered one of the most popular nature spots for hiking, climbing and even running. Its highest point reaches up to 914 meters (30000 ft) above sea level and there are several trails leading up to the top. Þverfellshorn is the most visited summit for its unparalleled panoramic sceneries. If you plan to hike on mount Esja, we recommend you to check the local weather and find suitable outfits. There’s also a Reykjavik Summit helicopter tour taking you to see the breathtaking views.

Mount Esja is a Popular Weekend Destination for the Locals with Spectacular Views, Iceland

Mount Esja is a Popular Weekend Destination for the Locals with Spectacular Views

F

Frikirkjan Church, or the Free Church of Reykjavik, is one of the landmark buildings standing ashore of the beautiful Tjornin lake downtown. The vibrant green roof on top of the pure white wall makes the structure stand out like an emerald on a crown. The church has been standing there since the autumn of 1902 and it’s built specifically for the Free Church Congregation founded in Reykjavik in the autumn of 1899.  

Frikirkjan Church (the Free Church of Reykjavik) Stands Ashore of Tjornin Pond in Reykjavik, Iceland

Frikirkjan Church (the Free Church of Reykjavik) Stands Ashore of Tjornin Pond in Reykjavik, Iceland

G

Glacier Hiking on Solheimajokull Glacier Tongue From Reykjavik, South Iceland

Glacier Hiking on Solheimajokull Glacier Tongue From Reykjavik, South Iceland

Glacier tours from Reykjavik are the most popular activity tours among tourists. Although situated on the southwest part of the island, Reykjavik is not so far from the glaciers in Iceland. In fact, the capital is really close to Langjokull glacier, the second largest glacier in Iceland. You can experience snowmobiling on the endless snowy glacier towards the spectacular horizon or glacier hiking on amazing escapes. Driving south, you will reach Vatnajokull glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland and Europe.

H

Hallgrimskirkja Church is the landmark structure when it comes to the cityscape of Reykjavik for it’s the highest building in the city with a height of 74.5 meters (244 feet). The state architect Guðjón Samúelsson designed the Lutheran parish church. The unique appearance, especially the facade, resembles basalt columns, mountains, and glaciers as an expressionistic integration of the essences found in nature of Iceland. 

Hallgrimskirkja Church on a Sunny Automn's Day, Reykjavik, Iceland

Hallgrimskirkja Church on a Sunny Automn's Day, Reykjavik, Iceland

The church houses a giant pipe organ that’s the work of a German organ builder and it’s capable of producing powerful notes to fill the enormous space with a range of tones. Hallgrimskirkja has as an observatory with the church bell producing melodic tones. To reach the church tower visitors need to pay a small entrance fee of 1000 Icelandic Krona to take an elevator to the top. Up there you will have an unobstructed view of the entire city. It’s the most popular photography spot for capturing the vivid scenes of the world’s northernmost capital.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center is a distinguished landmark located right next to the harbor. Its glamorous appearance has attracted 10 million visitors ever since it’s opened in April 2011. There is a diverse range of performances and shows going on every day including the well-received stand-up comedy How To Become Icelandic In 60 Minutes that has been running for 7 successful years. As the main cultural and social center in the capital, Harpa’s gigantic glass structure is also an enchanting destination for photographers as its iridescence perfectly adapts to the surroundings between days and nights.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center

Hateigskirkja Church is a unique church near downtown Reykjavik with four pointed towers rising up distinguishingly. It’s built from 1957 to 1965 and designed by architect Halldór H. Jónsson, who is well-known in Iceland because of his numerous work including Hotel Saga in downtown that was the former base of the Icelandic national broadcast company. Hateigskirkjia has an astonishingly beautiful glass corridor that connects the congregation and the church itself.

Hlemmur Food Court, or matholl in Icelandic, is a food court located downtown, where it hosts 10 dedicated food vendors with the best tastes of Iceland, at a reasonable price. From an artisan bakery, a nice coffee shop, a local ice cream brand, an authentic Vietnamese food parlor to a delicious Icelandic BBQ joint, Hlemmur has become a popular spot for locals and visitors. It’s very easy to reach by public transportation since the major local bus stop is right in front of its entrance.

Holavallagardur is a historical cemetery in Reykjavik that was first used in 1838 and it’s the largest Icelandic churchyard in the 19th century. After two centuries of use, the yard is filled with stunning and well-grown trees and plants. Many well-known individuals were buried here, including influential politicians, poets, and public welfare figures. In the garden, some of the tombstones are colorful and large in size, celebrated with a diverse range of plants, to honor the cultural history of Icelanders. The garden was nominated for the Nordic Council Environment Prize in 2005.

Hringvegurinn means the Ring Road or Pjodvegur 1 in Icelandic. It’s a national road circling the entire island of Iceland, and it’s the most important channel connecting the remote areas to the capital. Along the way, there are countless natural attractions in the settings of the diverse Icelandic landscapes. It’s considered one of the most beautiful road trips in the world.

Self-drive on Ring Road of Iceland, Starting Point Reykjavik, Iceland

Self-drive on Ring Road of Iceland, Starting Point Reykjavik, Iceland

I

International Film Festival of Reykjavik, or RIFF, is an annual celebration of film-making around the world and is considered the biggest and most diverse cultural event in Iceland. It has screened an assortment of films, focusing on dramas and non-fiction films from over 40 countries. The film screenings are usually pretty unusual venues which may include swimming pools or even in the filmmaker’s home! Reykjavik International Film Festival lasts over 11 days every autumn, making Iceland a desirable place for film lovers in September.

Film Screening in a Swimming Pool during Reykjavik International Film Festival, Iceland

Film Screening in a Swimming Pool during Reykjavik International Film Festival, Iceland (Photo Credit Alinoe Creative Commons)

J

Jewelry design and jewelry shops in Reykjavik are another highlights worth mentioning. Although you might agree that Iceland is not a shoppers paradise, purchasing a piece of jewelry inspired by the fascinating nature of the island will definitely preserve your memory and keep it vivid over time. On Laugavegur, the main street of Reykjavik, and its jointing streets, there are several boutiques offering unique designs with handmade quality such as Aftur, Aurum, and Orrifinn. Many of the pieces have a unique and fresh approach to presenting something beautiful and lasting.

K

Kolaportid is the largest flea market in Iceland where joyful crowds wander through vendors looking for a good bargain and it’s a great chance to meet the locals! In Kolaportid, you will find all kinds of things including vintage clothing, antiques, second-hand books, woolen product, and Icelandic food. Keep in mind that a lot of vendors only accept cash, it’s better to prepare some in advance as the in-house ATM’s line can be really long.

An Icelandic Lopapeysa Sweater Vendor at Kolaportid Flee Market

An Icelandic Lopapeysa Sweater Vendor at Kolaportid Flee Market

Kaffi is the Icelandic word for coffee. Sounds similar, right? Reykjavik has some of the best coffee shops in the world, and it’s not an overstatement. The Nordic nation has a huge obsession for good coffee. The recommendation list runs long but when you have some luxury to enjoy a leisure afternoon in downtown Reykjavik we highly recommend you to step into the colorful world of Café Babalú, or find a cozy spot at Reykjavik Roaster. If you are here in summer, Kaffibrennslan’s little yard is the best place to enjoy a sip right outside its two-story coffee house on the main street Laugavegur. And Sandholt is the perfect place to sit in for some delicate cakes with good coffee when you crave some treat of bitter plus sweet.

L

Lighthouse in Reykjavik is a popular attraction. It’s located in Seltjarnarnes, a nice town in the capital area at the northern tip of the arm of Reykjavik. The main lighthouse, Grotta, is a distinguishable landmark overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean, with seabirds hovering near and far. A visit to Grotta is a wonderful walk amidst the soundtrack of seabirds and the sound waves from the tides and the wind. The scenery is epic, especially during sunset hours. But be mindful of the tidal fluctuation schedule since it is not impossible to get trapped on the tiny lighthouse island after the sea submerges the pathway.

Grotta Lighthouse in Seltjarnarnes, the Capital Region, Iceland

Grotta Lighthouse in Seltjarnarnes, the Capital Region, Iceland

Laugavegur is the main street in downtown Reykjavik that has the most intriguing and interesting shopping opportunities for tourists. You will also find some of the coolest bars and restaurants there. Laugavegur means “wash road” because it was once the route to hot springs where the locals did their laundry. Now as the trendiest street in Iceland, Laugavegur represents and is symbolic of Iceland as you will see the tiny island nation from all possible aspects - it’s surprisingly compact yet innovative and cutting edge - you will see Iceland’s design and obsession of beauty at its best.

Literature weights a lot in Reykjavik as it’s been designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011 and it’s the first non-native English speaking city to receive such an honor. With plenty of authors with international fame, the notable Halldor Laxness, who is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, was inspired in Reykjavik and now his old house is operated as a museum dedicated to memorizing the great national hero. There are also numerous literature festivals held in Reykjavik: the Reykjavik International Literature Festival runs biennially since 1985. Reykjavik’s International Festival of Children’s Literature is also a biennial event since its inauguration in 2001.

Laugardalur means hot spring valley in English and it has the largest outdoor thermal pool in Reykjavik. The botanical garden we have mentioned above is located here and you can find the lovely Cafe Flora amidst the arctic fragrance. One of the most significant events to happen in Icelandic modern history is from 2018 when the Icelandic football team made the finals in the World Cup.  The glorious moment was imprinted forever in Laugardalur Stadium which is located in this area.

M

Music Festivals in Reykjavik is absolutely the highlights of the year. Iceland Airwave is the most influential music event in Iceland and each year’s lineup caters to a variety of concertgoers with different tastes. On its stage, many singer-and-songwriters made their debut to the international audience to start their successful music career. If you are visiting Iceland in November, be sure to check out the lineup. In summer, Reykjavik’s Secret Solstice Music Festival always collides its schedule with the magical midnight sun, the neverending daylight always adds some excitement to the event. Following June’s Secret Solstice, July’s Sonar Music Festival focuses on the innovation and creative sides of music and is considered one of the most popular events for music lovers. The longest running music festival in Iceland is the Reykjavik Jazz Festival, another annual musical feast presenting the best of Icelandic jazz music - with prestigious international guests also invited.

N

National Museum of Iceland is located in Reykjavik close to the University of Iceland, with permanent and special exhibitions telling grand stories about the historical age and modern times of Iceland. The fascinating detail preserved in the artifacts and items is the attraction of a comprehensive understanding of how far Iceland has come. Among the many treasures, Valthjofsstadur door gathers the biggest crowd because of its delicate engravings, showing the legendary tale of knight Le Chevalier au Lion in the 12th century.

Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach is what the locals call sunbathing paradise. It’s a golden sand, geothermal beach in Reykjavik which started welcoming visitors in 2001. People often go there for sunbathing, sailing and swimming in the sea. The water is a mix of cold sea water and hot geothermal water resulting in the perfect, warm temperature that people can enjoy despite the chilly air of Iceland.

Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach in Reykjavik, Iceland

Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach in Reykjavik, Iceland

National Theatre of Iceland launched in 1950 and has been a pioneering institution in Iceland for theatrical and dramatic arts. It’s located in downtown Reykjavik and the structure was designed by Gudjon Samuelsson, who named the building as ‘Palace of Elves.’ Nowadays, its stage presents around 20 to 30 productions each season comprising both Icelandic and international works.

Nightlife in Reykjavik is surprisingly fun. It might have something to do with Iceland’s location on the planet - the very long dark hours in winter and the endless daylight in summer - Reykjavik actually has great nightlife! On its main street Laugavegur, you can find many breweries, bars, and clubs to sample some unique Icelandic drinks. In the past, beer was banned in Iceland, the law lifted in March 1989. As a result, breweries started to open and boom accordingly. Due to Iceland’s location and temperature, the quality of the local beer selection and breweries are definitely worth exploring! For cocktail lovers, Laugavegur is also an ideal street for you to taste some signature Icelandic cocktails in downtown Reykjavik.

O

Old Harbor, or Reykjavik Harbor, was built between 1913 and 1917. To say it’s old and past its best is completely incorrect, as the Harbor is now flourishing as the tourism industry booms. Walking along its extensive shore, you will get a glimpse of Reykjavik’s skyline. It also hosts many hot spots such as cool galleries and trendy restaurants and bars. Many landmark structures are seen near the harbor including Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager. Reykjavik Harbor is also where the whale watching tours start. You can choose to go onboard a whale watching boat sailing to the sea from the harbor or getting on a rib boat that is capable of getting very close to the whales. In winter, there are several special tours departing from Reykjavik Harbor including the amazing combo of whale watching and Northern Light hunting.

Reykjavik Harbor, or Old Harbor in Reykjavik

Reykjavik Harbor, or Old Harbor in Reykjavik

P

Perlan Museum is an impressive structure located near downtown Reykjavik. As one of the most ambitious exhibition projects in Iceland, Perlan presents an amazing perspective to see what Iceland has to offer. It’s a must-visit destination where you will find a handful of large-scale exhibitions. On its third floor, you can find a fabulous restaurant with a 360-degree view of the entire Capital Region, in which you will see the beautiful mount Esja backdrop Reykjavik’s colorful houses and rising churches. The view is complete with the sight of the ice-capped Snaefellsjokull glacier afar in the distance while the ocean’s blueness divides the scene into two contrasting worlds. The observation deck is also highly recommended for its unobstructed view of Northern Lights in winter.  

Perlan Museum in Winter Reykjavik, Iceland

Perlan Museum in Winter Reykjavik, Iceland (Photo credit to Tony Hisgett -Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Pylsur, or hotdog sausage in English, is the most popular street food in Iceland. It usually refers to the brand Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. As the most common item listed on top 10 food to recommended in Reykjavik, the hot dog’s attractive price and delicious taste have won countless good reviews from global travelers including Metallica, Kim Kardashian, and the former president of United States, Bill Clinton.

Pylsur - Hot Dog Stand in Downtown Reykjavik

Pylsur - Hot Dog Stand in Downtown Reykjavik

R

Ráðhús Reykjavikur is the building of Reykjavík City Hall. It’s neatly located next to the scenic Tjornin Lake. It brings nature, birdlife, and culture perfectly together in colorful harmony. With plenty of room available, Radhus serves as the base for the mayor of Reykjavik, a gigantic 3D topographic map of Iceland, and sometimes art exhibitions, events and even live music shows. As a landmark building in downtown, Radhus Reykjavikur is also one of the major pickup locations for tours to Blue Lagoon, ice caves and so on. Compared to its neighbors, the Radhus Reykjavikur building is relatively young, constructed in 1992. The postmodern appearance has added a metropolis vibe to the city center, with its concrete pillars, enormous glass walls, and a wall of moss entrance, which looks like installation art. It’s designer, Studio Granda said that the structure should reflect the Nordic material - stones, sheet metal, and timber. The architects also designed the Reykjavik Art Museum.  

The Moss Wall Outside Ráðhús Reykjavikur, Reykjavik City Hall, Iceland

The Moss Wall Outside Ráðhús Reykjavikur, Reykjavik City Hall, Iceland

S

Solfar, or the Sun Voyager, is a unique modern sculpture located by the Reykjavik seaside with a great view of Mount Esja. The vision for this piece of art is to convey the promise of the undiscovered territory, the Sun Voyager symbolizing the dreamboat that goes into the unknown, for the promise of hope and freedom. The Sun Voyager is often misinterpreted as a Viking boat while it’s actually a symbol for light and hope, an ode to the sun.

Solfar - the Sun Voyager

Solfar - the Sun Voyager

Swimming pools in Reykjavik come highly recommended! Meet the locals and relax in the hot tub! There are seven public swimming pools where heated geothermal water runs through and warms the pool, and the admission fee usually costs no more than 1000 isk, if you are looking for a cheap day out.

A Sunny Day in the Swimming Pool and Hot Pot in Reykjavik, Iceland

A Sunny Day in the Swimming Pool and Hot Pot in Reykjavik, Iceland

T

Tjornin Pond is a beautiful lake in Downtown Reykjavik, next to the City Hall and Frikirkjan Church. A dramatic setting in any season! Surrounded by elegantly colored old houses and the outstanding City Hall building, the beautiful lake comes alive with countless geese, swans, ducks, and seagulls hovering above the lake or resting in the water. Not far from Tjornin, you will also find an extensive patch of green, blooming with botanic scents in summer. It’s one of the most photogenic spots in Reykjavik.

Reykjavik's Most Beautiful Lake Tjornin, Iceland

Reykjavik's Most Beautiful Lake Tjornin, Iceland (Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/leeys/)

U

UNESCO heritage has a close tie to Reykjavik. A UNESCO City of Literature, Reykjavik is also very close to another UNESCO site - Thingvellir National Park, one of the three attractions in the famous Golden Circle. Only a 50-kilometers drive away, Thingvellir holds historical and geographical significance, as the site where the world’s first parliament, Althing, was established in 930 AD and as the fissure between the North American and European tectonic plates, where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible above ground. It’s one of the most spectacular scenes in Iceland and is truly unique.

University of Iceland is Iceland’s oldest and largest higher education institution. Founded in 1911, the public research university has expanded from a school to a modern comprehensive university, where today more than 14,000 students are enrolled. The open campus is a great area to walk around, as you will find the National Museum of Iceland at its east side, and Haskolabio (University Cinema) at its north side. The popular eatery on campus Studentakjallarinn has a wide selection of delicious food at a reasonable price, the grilled burger is the local’s favorite!

University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland

University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland

V

Videy is an island 5 kilometers northeast of Reykjavik, where Yoko Ono set up the Imagine Peace Tower to memorialize her late husband - the former Beatles member John Lennon. The tower is a white stone monument where 15 searchlights come together in a pillar of light shine up into the sky. The light, powered by Iceland’s unique geothermal energy, can shine for at least 4 kilometers high on a clear night. On the tower, the words “Imagine Peace” are carved into 24 languages on its white stone. You can check the ferry schedule from Reykjavik old harbor to plan your visit to Videy, an island of history, nature, and art.

W

Whale watching from Reykjavik is a popular tourist activity in Reykjavik and most tours depart from Reykjavik Old Harbor. Reykjavik has the natural advantage of being situated in the ideal location to see the giant marine mammals, as you can find many whale species in the nearby waters. All year round you can see white-beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises in Faxafloi Bay, which stretches from Reykjavik to Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Humpback and minke whales are commonly seen during the summer. There are usually two types of boats you can get onboard for whale watching, the bigger boat provides shelter from bad weather but the smaller RIB boat can take you closer to the whales.

Getting Close To Whale on a RIB Boat Whale Watching Tour From Reykjavik, Iceland

Getting Close To Whale on a RIB Boat Whale Watching Tour From Reykjavik, Iceland

Whales of Iceland Museum is a new addition to Reykjavik’s exhibition venues and is located very close to Reykjavik Harbor, where all whale watching tours depart. The immersive exhibit takes you into the miraculous world of whales featuring 23 to scale whale models in a deep ocean blue themed exhibit hall, making you feel as if you are underwater with the sea life.

To scale whale model in Whales of Iceland Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland

To scale whale model in Whales of Iceland Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland

X

Xmas Christmas markets in Reykjavik might not compare to the Christmas markets in other major European cities, but it’s still worth dropping by, during the Christmas season in Reykjavik. You get to hang out with the locals in a beautiful setting, with snow-covered roads and flickering lights brightening up the darkest month of Iceland. During Advent, you can find a small Christmas market in Ingolfstorg Square downtown, offering a perfect chance to sample or purchase local food and crafts, from friendly chefs, creative designers, and craftsmen. Close to the line of booths, there is a small ice rink with ice skate rental available, making a lively Christmas scene in central Reykjavík. Don’t forget to learn how to say Merry Christmas in Icelandic - Gleðileg jól!

Christmas Time in Reykjavik, Iceland

Christmas Time in Reykjavik, Iceland (Photo by Óli Haukur Mýrdal)

Y

Yarn shops in Reykjavik are highly recommended and you should plan to take some home as a souvenir. Knitting is a very popular creative pastime for Icelanders and everyone has at least one signature wool sweater, a lopapeysa. In the downtown shops, you will find Icelandic yarns in elegant colors with knitting tools and accessories. Wool is considered the most suitable fabric for surviving the freezing cold weather. In the wintertime where the daylight is so much shorter, the best thing to do is to set up a cozy spot at home for knitting, play some relaxing music and make some hot cocoa. That’s what the Icelanders do!

Z

Zoo. Yes, the world’s northernmost national capital has a zoo. It’s not the biggest park, but it sure is adorable! The zoo inhabitants include Icelandic horses, some local farm animals, and a few wild mammals that call the far north home. There is also a small exhibition of fish, reptiles, insects, and amphibians. The zoo, or húsdýragarðurinn in Icelandic, is located in Laugadalur close to the botanical garden, and there is a theme park in the zoo, perfect for families traveling with children.

A Seal Relaxing on a Stone in Reykjavik Zoo, Iceland

A Seal Relaxing on a Stone in Reykjavik Zoo, Iceland

Where to Eat and Where to Stay in Reykjavik?

There are 10 types of local food that deserve your attention while in Reykjavik, including the famous Icelandic lamb meat and hot dog.

As a result of the tourism boom in Iceland since 2010, satisfying international tastebuds became a priority! Even the Reykjavikans became picky eaters and started to demand new flavors and cooking methods! Many restaurants adapted to the trend accordingly, by experimenting with new elements on the traditional Icelandic cuisine. Now in Reykjavik, you have many options when it comes to fine dining.

On the search for Icelandic local cuisine, downtown Reykjavik has a range of suitable and traditional Icelandic restaurants. Why not join a food tour to explore a diverse selection of authentic local cuisine, unique to Iceland.

If you’re looking at where to stay in Reykjavik, it mostly depends on what you want to get out of your stay in Iceland. The accommodation in downtown Reykjavik is a convenient distance to all major attractions so you can explore the city at your liberty. If you only plan to use your accommodation as a base, the greater Reykjavik area has plenty of accommodation options including hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. We have a list of recommendations in the capital area for you to see what options are available. For travelers on a budget, Airbnb is getting more popular due to its competitive prices.

Please keep in mind that summer and winter are two busy seasons, make sure you book your accommodation in advance.

Transportation in Reykjavik

The main bus station in Reykjavik is the BSI bus terminal where the closest attractions are all within a 30-minute walk. When you come from or go to Keflavik International Airport, you can choose to either get on the bus at BSI or choose to book your airport transfer with pickup/dropoff option at an extensive selection of hotels in Reykjavik.

Transportation in the Capital Region is fairly convenient. The public bus system is named Straeto, meaning bus. Its yellow color is very easy to notice on the road. You can plan your transportation by downloading the Straeto app where it’s the easiest way to purchase bus tickets, track buses, and plan your route.

Transportation From Keflavik International Airport to Reykjavik

Transportation From Keflavik International Airport to Reykjavik

The Weather in Reykjavik and Best Time to Visit

Reykjavik is situated in southwest Iceland, where temperatures are cold! The Gulf Stream takes the warmer current to the shore of Reykjavik then moves all the way up to the north, giving Reykjavik a mild temperature all year round.

In the north, Reykjavik temperatures rarely drop below −15 °C (5 °F) in the winter, under the influence of the North Atlantic Current. Reykjavik’s winter is cold but not unmanageable, with gales coming and going. For travelers, knowing what to wear in Iceland is the most helpful since “there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Winter is a popular season because of the Northern Lights and the fairytale-like snowy wilderness. As long as you dress suitably and follow the weather forecast attentively, winter in Iceland is indescribably charming.

Reykjavik night lights, Iceland

Night lights in Reykjavik, Iceland

Summer in Reykjavik is cool, with temperatures ranging from 10 and 15 °C (50 and 59°F) and if any summer day exceeds 20 °C (68 °F), Icelanders will call it a bliss. Depending on what you plan on doing, Summer is a great time to visit Reykjavik and Iceland because of the midnight sun. This 24-hour daylight is best for traveling! It’s also the optimum season to go whale watching. The downside is that there are more tourist crowds.  

The best time to visit Reykjavik and Iceland depends on what you want to see and how well you are prepared for staying in Iceland.

Fascinating Colors of the Sky during Midnight-Sun in Summer Reykjavik, Iceland

Fascinating Colors of the Sky during Midnight-Sun in Summer Reykjavik, Iceland

Popular Tours From Reykjavik

Northern Lights Tours From Reykjavik

Northern Lights Tours From Reykjavik

Reykjavik City Map

Map - Click to Enlarge Reykjavik City Map with Highlight Attractions

Fun Facts about Reykjavik

Street view of Hallgrimskirkja Church and Reykjavik, Iceland

Street view of Hallgrimskirkja Church and Reykjavik, Iceland

  • Reykjavik’s location is only two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, its latitude is 64.1466° N which makes Reykjavik the northernmost capital in the world.
  • Dogs were banned in Reykjavik from 1924 to 1984 because they were considered as a farm animal that couldn’t adapt to urban life.
  • Reykjavik is the only western European capital that’s without either Starbucks or McDonalds! But there are multiple local coffee brands and other international burger chain and local burger stores can satisfy your coffee and fast food cravings!
  • The most popular food in downtown Reykjavik is the hot dog! It’s the only brand in Iceland that can use the word “best” in its brand name ‘Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur,’ meaning The Town's Best Sausages.
Ultimate Guide to Reykjavik | Capital of Iceland | Extreme Iceland

 

 

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